Members of the U.S. Men's Wheelchair Basketball team pose after the completion of the first selection camp of the year.
Since 2016, the U.S. men’s wheelchair basketball team has established itself has one of the most dominating countries on the court. And after winning the gold medal at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016, Team USA enters 2020 as the basketball squad to beat.
National team veterans Brian Bell and Trevon Jenifer know what it’s like to play with that target on their chests, knowing every country in the world wants to play the Americans.
“We are the favorites going into the Games, so we have to make sure we’re playing at the top level,” Bell said. “We can’t be complacent. No matter what, teams love playing against us. We constantly have to be at our best to win.”
Bell was a Paralympic rookie on the 2016 gold medal team, but has since become a defensive force on the court. Jenifer, also a first-time Paralympian on the 2016 roster, echoed Bell’s sentiments about what it’s like playing for the United States.
“Every team gives us their best shot,” Jenifer said. “And that’s a tribute to what we have to do. If we don’t come out with playing our best game, then it’s a problem. But these guys - my teammates - are so good at being poised under pressure.”
Preparation for that intense pressure has been on-going, and the team just wrapped their first selection camp of the year, meaning both Bell and Jenifer are aiming to make their second U.S. Paralympic team.
The camp was also the first time they’ve been back together since the 2019 Parapan American Games, where they won a gold medal over Canada, winning by over 30 points.
Although they qualified for Tokyo in a semifinal win over Argentina, the dominating victory over Canada cemented them as one of the world’s best.
“The fashion that we qualified in was phenomenal,” Jenifer said. “It’s a brotherhood here. The 12 guys on the squad and the coaching staff put so much time into all that we do. People only see the game aspect of it; they don’t see what we do behind the scenes. We’re out here and we’re grinding, trying to get better and win another gold.”
Their performance at Parapans only fueled their fire to defend their Paralympic gold medal in 2020, and that meant getting back in the gym at the Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in early January.
After a four month break from the national team, both Bell and Jenifer were excited to get back to work. However, the offseason wasn’t a true offseason. Not with such high stakes in 2020.
Bell spent his time playing on a professional team in Germany, while Jenifer continued to play on a team in Washington, D.C. Both men knew January was looming, and that meant they had to be ready to go when the time came. Not only did they want to be in top shape for themselves, but they also knew they had a whole group of teammates that depend on them.
“I’m constantly motivated by my teammates out there practicing just as hard as I am,” Jenifer said. “I’m accountable for myself and what iIm doing, but I’m also accountable for those guys as well. They’re my motivation.”
Although it’s just the beginning of what could be a highlight-filled year, Bell knows there is so much work to get to the top and stay there.
“We have to work on our defense,” Bell said. “And getting back to that championship mentality like we had in Rio. I felt like it dipped a bit between Rio and now, but now we’re getting back to that championship level defense one day at a time.”
Both Bell and Jenifer will continue to vye for a spot on the Tokyo 2020 roster when they reconvene with teammates in Colorado Springs in May. Until then, there is always more work to be done.
“It’s still trying to make the team,” Jenifer said. “And there are steps to get to the ultimate goal. We’re not going to get there in one step. The championship game is not tomorrow. We just go a step at a time, a practice at a time, a game at a time. That’s what this team is so good at doing.”